Murray Bookchin

Murray Bookchin

Murray Bookchin, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, was born in New York City on 14th January 1921. His parents held left-wing opinions and at the age of nine he joined the Young Pioneers, the youth organization of the American Communist Party.

After leaving school he worked in an iron foundry and auto plant and became an active trade unionist. In the 1930s he rejected the policies of Joseph Stalin and identified with the ideas of Leon Trotsky. Bookchin eventually became disillusioned with communism and was greatly influenced by the theories of Peter Kropotkin. By the 1950s he described himself as an anarchist and was a regular contributor to the libertarian Marxist journal Contemporary Issues.

In the 1960s he began teaching at the Free University in Manhattan. This was followed by a post at the Ramapo State College in New Jersey. During this period Bookchin wrote two important journalistic books, intended for a general readership, using the name, Lewis Herber. In Our Synthetic Environment, published in 1962, he surveyed the scientific literature on pesticides, food additives, and X-radiation as sources of human illness, including cancer. In Crisis in Our Cities (1965) he explored environmental problems relating to American urban areas.

Bookchin became a pioneer of the ecology movement and in 1971 he co-founded, the Institute for Social Ecology at Goddard College in Vermont. Bookchin later argued: "Social ecology is based on the conviction that nearly all of our present ecological problems originate in deep-seated social problems. It follows, from this view, that these ecological problems cannot be understood, let alone solved, without a careful understanding of our existing society and the irrationalities that dominate it."

Bookchin published a series of books on social ecology including Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971), The Limits of the City (1973) and Toward an Ecological Society (1980). In The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy (1982), Bookchin argues that "If we do not do the impossible, we shall be faced with the unthinkable."

As a Marxist, Bookchin argued that capitalism had to be overthrown: "The notion that man must dominate nature emerges directly from the domination of man by man… But it was not until organic community relation… dissolved into market relationships that the planet itself was reduced to a resource for exploitation. This centuries-long tendency finds its most exacerbating development in modern capitalism. Owing to its inherently competitive nature, bourgeois society not only pits humans against each other, it also pits the mass of humanity against the natural world. Just as men are converted into commodities, so every aspect of nature is converted into a commodity, a resource to be manufactured and merchandised wantonly.… The plundering of the human spirit by the market place is paralleled by the plundering of the earth by capital."

Bookchin also studied the role anarchists played in the Spanish Civil War. This resulted in the publication of The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years (1977). The book was a history of the Spanish anarchist movement from its origins to the mid-1930s. He later published To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936.

According to John P. Clark, the author of The Anarchist Moment: Reflections on Culture, Nature and Power (1984): "Bookchin's work continued to evolve in the 1980s. He developed a theory of libertarian municipalism, a full-scale critique of nature philosophy, and the defense of radical ecology within the Green movement." Other books on social ecology included The Modern Crisis (1986) and The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship (1987). In Remaking Society (1990) Bookchin argues that capitalism cannot solve these environmental problems. He attacks the idea of green capitalism and points out that "capitalism can no more be persuaded to limit growth than a human being can be persuaded to stop breathing."

Other books by Bookchin included Re-Enchanting Humanity (1995), The Third Revolution (1996), Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm (1997), The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism (1997) and Anarchism, Marxism and the Future of the Left (1999).

In his later life Bookchin became increasingly disillusioned with anarchism. In the 1990s he began to argue that social ecology was a new form of libertarian socialism and was part of the framework of communalism. According to Janet Biehl in a 2002 essay "he rejected anarchism altogether in favor of communalism, an equally anti-statist doctrine that he felt to be more explicitly oriented than anarchism to social rather than to individual liberation."

Murray Bookchin died on 30th July 2006.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy (1982)

If we do not do the impossible, we shall be faced with the unthinkable.... Nor do piecemeal steps however well intended, even partially resolve problems that have reached a universal, global and catastrophic character. If anything, partial "solutions" serve merely as cosmetics to conceal the deep seated nature of the ecological crisis. They thereby deflect public attention and theoretical insight from an adequate understanding of the depth and scope of the necessary changes.

(2) Murray Bookchin, Remaking Society (1990)

To speak of "limits to growth" under a capitalistic market economy is as meaningless as to speak of limits of warfare under a warrior society. The moral pieties, that are voiced today by many well-meaning environmentalists, are as naive as the moral pieties of multinationals are manipulative. Capitalism can no more be "persuaded" to limit growth than a human being can be "persuaded" to stop breathing. Attempts to "green" capitalism, to make it "ecological", are doomed by the very nature of the system as a system of endless growth.

(3) Janet Biehl, Murray Bookchin (2003)

The early 1980s saw the publication of Bookchin’s two major works. The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy (1982; republished 1991 and 2005) is a magisterial discussion of ecology and social hierarchy, weaving political, anthropological, psychological, and scientific themes. Here Bookchin explores the notion of dominating nature and its historical emergence primarily from the very real social domination of human by human, particularly in gerontocracies, patriarchies, and other hierarchical strata. He considered hierarchy and domination as more fundamental forms of oppression than class and exploitation.

His second “magnum opus” was The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship (1986; republished as Urbanization Without Cities [1992] and From Urbanization to Cities [1995]). This masterpiece narrates a history of civic self-management, face-to-face democracy, and confederalism in the Western democratic tradition, beginning in ancient Greece and proceeding through medieval European towns and to the popular institutions in several revolutions, particularly the American and French. The book culminates in a chapter-long exposition of libertarian municipalism, which is the name Bookchin gave to his political project. Libertarian municipalism is a politics that seeks to recreate a vital local political or civic sphere in order to establish direct-democratic popular assemblies at the municipal, town, and neighborhood levels. Over larger regions these assemblies would confederate and, as they gained strength, challenge the centralized nation-state. He argued for a municipalization (rather than a Marxian nationalization) of the economy, as a way of opposing the present corporate capitalist system of ownership and management. Some of these ideas were also developed in the essays compiled in The Modern Crisis (1986).

In the mid-1980s Bookchin helped inspire the emergence of the international Green political movement and had a strong influence on the rise of the Greens in Germany and later on its “fundi” wing. In 1987 he delivered the keynote address of the first Green gathering in the United States, in Amherst, Massachusetts. Here he opened up a debate within the ecology movement over Deep Ecology, a set of ideas that were gaining influence ant the time and that he considered to have reactionary political implications due to their prioritization of nonhuman nature over human beings as well as to their emphasis on spirituality and mysticism. He also opposed tendencies in the U.S. Greens that wanted to create a Green Party to run candidates for state and national office; instead he preferred a radical green movement that would educate the public about the need for both local democracy and ecological solutions, in accordance with libertarian municipalism. In the late 1980s, as a member of the Greens in Burlington, Vermont, he participated in several local political campaigns that were intended to raise awareness of environmental issues in the city and at the same time call for the democratization of local political institutions. In 1988 he co-founded the Left Green Network, a confederation of groups that shared his approach.

(4) Murray Bookchin, The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism (1997)

Social ecology is based on the conviction that nearly all of our present ecological problems originate in deep-seated social problems. It follows, from this view, that these ecological problems cannot be understood, let alone solved, without a careful understanding of our existing society and the irrationalities that dominate it. To make this point more concrete: economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts, among many others, lie at the core of the most serious ecological dislocations we face today - apart, to be sure, from those that are produced by natural catastrophes.

(5) Murray Bookchin, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm (1997)

The notion that man must dominate nature emerges directly from the domination of man by man… But it was not until organic community relation… dissolved into market relationships that the planet itself was reduced to a resource for exploitation. This centuries-long tendency finds its most exacerbating development in modern capitalism. Owing to its inherently competitive nature, bourgeois society not only pits humans against each other, it also pits the mass of humanity against the natural world. Just as men are converted into commodities, so every aspect of nature is converted into a commodity, a resource to be manufactured and merchandised wantonly.… The plundering of the human spirit by the market place is paralleled by the plundering of the earth by capital.